So this past week I’ve finally got round to playing Horizon: Zero Dawn. As pretty much every review has said, it looks lovely and is very interesting etc... but this isn’t a review (attention: this is a review).
No, this is an opinion piece that’s ruptured its way out of my frontal lobes after playing Horizon for a bit now (and to be fair, quite a few other recent games). And my opinion is as follows: currently, video game stealth in most titles is like cheap 1980s-style strawberry ice cream.
You know the stuff – the pink stripe in the tub of Neapolitan that everyone except deviants leaves in preference for chocolate or vanilla. The stuff that has a specific sweet, vaguely fruity taste that isn’t really a very good approximation of the taste of a strawberry. That stuff.
This bogus strawberry flavour is now so established, people barely think about it. I’d bet most people would know it and say it was ‘strawberry’ if you gave it to them to identify blindfold, even though they also know it tastes about as much like an actual strawberry as an orange does.
And why are games like this rubbish dessert? Because stealth in games at the moment is also its own thing that claims to be something else. It’s a bit like what real stealth would be of course, but look more closely and it really, really isn’t.
Because if people in the real world who needed to be stealthy were ‘video game stealthy’ they’d almost certainly be spotted even by the most inept of guards, probably experiencing some sort of violent badness to their person as a consequence.
The thing that bust the camel’s hump clean off for me was playing as Aloy and lurking in tall grass waiting to surprise one of Horizon’s many robot dinosaur thingies with a sneak kill. One duly strolled up, stood right next to me, and proceeded to completely ignore me despite the facts (a) The foliage was fairly thin and (b) My head was clearly sticking out above the grass a bit.
Then I accidentally pressed the wrong button and stood up. Suddenly, and despite only being marginally more exposed than I was seconds earlier, the robot immediately went into apeshit mode. It chased me relentlessly until I managed to run round a corner, duck down again into a hedge and avoid it.
Finally, like the massive moron it was, after about 30 seconds it went back to doing whatever it’d been doing before as if it’d never seen me in the first place. Then I stabbed it in its stupid eye, but that’s beside the point.
Basically, some variant of this scenario exists in tons of current games to some degree – the moronic
baddie who inexplicably can’t make things out more than 3 metres in front of them, and who is also absurdly optimistic about whether someone is coming to kill them or not. This, even when he or she (or it) has been repeatedly spooked by something moments earlier, and is also now stood next to a pile of fresh corpses and/or all their colleagues have mysteriously disappeared.
Obviously I get that there has to be some leeway to make games playable, but this state of play doesn’t seem to have moved on for ages. It’s still crouch, shuffle, rely on daft enemy with serious recall issues, kill them and shuffle on.
Even the magnificent Breath of the Wild, which does this better than most as enemies will take longer to calm down and are a hell of a lot better at spotting you than usual, suffers from this. If you run far enough away from any pursuing nasty you’ll hit their boundary and they’ll go “Oh lovely, he’s gone. Home we go then.”
They’ll then turn their backs to you and walk off as if nothing had ever happened, even though you’re still mere metres away with a ruddy great sword. They could at least back off facing you, like a territorial animal would.
It’s also something that occasionally cross-infects level design. Take the previous Deux Ex game, for example. There was one level where, in a flashy office block, the main boardroom was linked directly to the gents toilets by an unlockable, man-sized air con tunnel to allow you to stealth your way past a heavily-armed guard at a barrier.
But stop for a minute and think about what this is. OK it was locked, but a meeting room directly linked to a toilet via a vast duct? What sort of lousy architect would really create that? Because of course, what everyone in meetings likes is the smell of wee and the noise of people doing big guffs and plops.
It worked for the purposes of adding an option to progress in the game, but is blatantly absurd unless the company was supposed to be run by lavatorial perverts (and I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered that plot twist if it were the case).
If you look back at the games of years past, so much has moved on. Graphics, obviously. Storytelling is improving too (albeit with frequent, abrupt backwards lurches). Production values? Off the chart.
But it’s time stealth got looked at again: we’re getting to the point where it’s so daft in comparison to the rest of the quality of games, and the design of games ends up doing so many things in service to the mechanic, that it’s illusion-breaking.
Title after title is still working with the same established premise of what video game ‘stealth’ is without moving it forward or really looking to see if it makes sense in the world they’re trying to create, and whether their approach is watertight.
If we’re going to have stealth, let’s have it with plausible explanations for how it works and how what you as the player does is possible. Sci-fi game? Fine, let’s have a cloaking device or chemical mind-control mist. Fantasy game? Some sort of disorienting magic. Whatever the scenario, have something that explains why you can’t easily be seen and why you’re so easily forgotten, other than ‘stealth, innit?’.
But what about that trickiest of things, the game set in an (alleged) real-world scenario where you can’t have some sort of fantastical explanation? Well let’s do it properly and have you need to not be seen AT ALL. Let’s have guards not give up if you blunder in and knock over a filing cabinet. It’s not as if it’d be impossible to plot this out – Hollywood has been managing for decades without having to portray every henchman in spy and heist films like Mission Impossible or Bond as effectively an Alzheimer’s-riddled Mr Magoo.
It could even be an opportunity for original gameplay mechanics – how about you have to tap into comms signals to collect voice samples for playback over walkie-talkies to make it seem like a guard is still on patrol before you take them out (or run the risk of immediately triggering a search when they don’t report in)? Or you have to disguise yourself as a guard you’ve taken out and run their patrol while working your way to a goal?
But most of all, let’s finally have adversaries who can see further than their own feet and more widely than a blinkered ‘dog cone’ of vision, grass that’s actually tall enough to hide in, and enemies who don’t shrug off dead bodies lying about as if stumbling across a deceased colleague is a mundane event.
Because I dunno about you, but I’m finding stupid pink strawb-goo of that sort increasingly difficult to swallow. Almost as difficult to swallow as the contrived set-up to that last gag. Yipe!
Super Bad Advice